Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What These Monuments Stand For

So I actually have a nuanced and complex opinion on the monuments and street names in New Orleans that honor the mythology of heroes to the so-called Confederate States, the cause they fought for, and the cause these monuments were built to celebrate. But since so many of the folks who want to keep these monuments and street names and all they represent, who defend them with bombastic and hyperbolic statements as if this is some simple issue, I feel it is only right that I return the favor with my own oversimplified position.

Throw these things in the damn lake and let them be buried in the mud.

These are monuments and honorifics that celebrate people who took up arms against the United States of America and for four years of open warfare attempted to destroy our nation. They fought for the "rights" and "freedom" of some human beings to own and enslave other human beings deemed inferior due to the color of their skin.

The period of open warfare did not achieve these political goals, and instead  secured the Union, ensured emancipation, and provided for the expansion of civil rights to previously enslaved Americans. A period of insurgent warfare and terrorism followed, as adherents to the old system attempted to restore the old order of things, where the rights of newly freed citizens would again be diminished due to the color of one's skin. There are monuments celebrating this warfare as well, right here in this city.

These are not questionable assertions or theories. These are the facts backed up by the historic record, often written by the very hands of the men who fought to destroy the Union and the men who fought to destroy the rights of others after the Civil War ended. These writings and statements of purpose we considered so uncontroversial that the very organizations that would later hold these men up as paragons of Southern patriotism and pride would preserve the very writings and statements of purpose that make up this historical record. They would do so unashamedly.

They would be able to do so because the simmering and unending insurgency in the South became too expensive for white Northern sentiment to justify.  White Northern sentiment, after all, was not a monolith thrown behind support of civil rights. In the end, the old temptations of power and money conspired to undermine the projects of Reconstruction and civil rights. In the end, certain interests in both the North and South realized what could be achieved with white sectional reconciliation, and what material wealth could be gained by keeping millions of citizens just above the institution of slavery, in the strangling arms of Jim Crow.

That white sectional reconciliation, that return to something close to the old order, was something to be celebrated. And what better way to celebrate the eventual "victors" of an issue than by building grand monuments to them, in places of public note? What better way to honor them than to have grand thoroughfares graced with their names? What better way to enshrine their "restored" legacy than to name schools for them? All of these are the ways our culture and civilization celebrate the giants among men.

What better way to say "we told you so" than to place the losers of a war in the highest pinnacles of cultural honor and, in the process, legitimize and polish away the ugly motivations behind the cause they fought for and attach some higher civic meaning to the military loss?

And once that higher civic meaning was attached, and the ugliness of "they fought to own other human beings" was washed away from their legacy with stories of defense of home and hearth and question of rights, all white Southerners were encouraged to buy into the fantasy (or discouraged from challenging it too fiercely). Many could now double down on the belief that superiority of skin color was real, that forces for "good" might have lost on the battlefield but won out in the end. Whole cults of personality grew up around the mythology of these men and reinforced the social hierarchy with laws, social behavior, and violence if anyone got too far out of line.

When monument defenders talk about the "history" they so desperately want to preserve, that is the history they are preserving whether they want to believe it or not. There are no footnotes of fine print on these statues and street names that say "we know this is complicated, but..." If such footnotes existed, if such context was added, then this may not be such an emotional issue for so many.

Look at the opposition, after all. The most popular online petition in support of keeping these monuments to heroes of slavery's cause demand the Mayor "stop talking about them." That's because even the civic conversation itself is dangerous - the very discussion of why these monuments were built puts the lie to the heroic mythology. Uncomfortable truths aren't usually welcome, and many individuals in the South are deeply invested in the bedtime story of what these men on those monuments represented. They aren't interested in the real context, the real history, or facing how the legacy of that history still runs deeply within our civic DNA to this day.

And those who would scold us for "erasing history" by moving these monuments out of their places of public prominence to places where appropriate historical context can be provided? They are defending monuments that served specifically to erase a more accurate accounting of history. They are defending monuments used to rewrite the cultural narrative of the South and celebrate the violent failure of Reconstruction's nascent civil rights project. They are defending trophies of propaganda to the Lost Cause. There are no footnotes or fine print on those statues and street names, after all.

There are plenty of places to put truth to the lies these monuments tell. General James Longstreet of the Confederacy moved to New Orleans after the Civil War and became a strong civic leader in this town. He was one of the officers in command of the integrated Metropolitan Police when the White League attacked the State House in New Orleans in 1874. He was pulled from his horse and was shot and injured. His actions for the Reconstruction government of New Orleans and Louisiana did not endear him to those who believed in the Lost Cause. Despite all his investments in New Orleans, there is no monument to James Longstreet in this town. But there is a monument to those who attacked him and his men at the Battle of Liberty Place.

PGT Beauregard of the Confederacy returned to his home in New Orleans after the Civil War. While he was no fan of Reconstruction or social integration, he grudgingly accepted political and economic rights of newly freed citizens. In the interest of calming New Orleans - violence was bad for business - he spoke eloquently on the topic. These words were not palpable to the Lost Cause, so do not appear on his monument on Esplanade Avenue.

Finally, at the corner of Carrollton and Banks, there is another monument. It is a plaque at the base of a flagpole, dedicating Carrollton as the "Avenue of Palms" to veterans of a different war, a forgotten war, Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991. There is no proud US flag on the rusty flagpole, the plaque could use a good powerwashing to really make out the words, and the base itself is off-kilter and surrounded by litter.

You'd think that, with all these signatures and speakers loudly defending the history and deep meaning of New Orleans' monuments, at least of few of them would mention this humble bit of metal and concrete as worth of at least a little attention. But we know it isn't really about the monuments themselves, it is about what they represent. And uncomfortable truths aren't usually welcome.



2 comments:

Tim said...

I concur. These are NOT monuments to brave and wise men who defended themselves and neighbors during the Civil War. These are monuments to the principle of white supremacy erected by people actively engaged in enforcing de facto slavery. These monuments must be removed from places of honor.

Peace,

Tim

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